I think our personal and communal relationship with time has become very strange in the past six weeks as we struggle to draw the lines between days, weeks, even hours. That strangeness of time, the way in which we experience and manipulate it for expressive purposes has been very much on my mind during the last month as we filmed ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE, IN Series’ first feature-length film. On the stage our relationship with time is direct, with a minimal sense of manipulation. In film time becomes totally malleable and allows new thresholds by which to access the classic myths upon which we have built culture. For musicians there is now more primal myth than that of Orpheus, and yet this film breaths new life into that myth while simultaneously using the myth to explore the most intimate and painful parts of the human experience: the lost of a loved life.
This is only one of the topics I explored in the first of our 2020-2021 Digital Director’s Salons with Benjamin Williamson and Paula Sides who take the solo roles in this project, and Andrew Albin who translated the original libretto into a wholly new English version. As the conversation continued through why this opera is called THE revolutionary opera that changed the history of the artform to how our society fails to understand death as an essential part of life, through Rilke’s tremendous Sonnets to Orpheus to what it means that we are all working in practices and disciplines for which we did not train, a deeper understanding of the importance of this project emerged and the conversation became almost two hours long. I sat down today to trim this discussion and found myself unable to do so.
Opera works over great expanses of time, both of individual performances and of generations of repertoire and stylistic development. The impact of our artform is deep and abiding. It’s value is in that depth, in that time taking. We live in an area where concepts are condensed to fit the prescribed of a tweet, where conversations are dwindled into the length and gesture of TED talk. That isn’t what we do at IN Series. Some things take longer to talk about, some journeys need more days. So I decided not to trim this conversation but to share it in its entirety.
That which matters gives back to us in proportion to what we ourselves give. In anticipation of the release of this important new work of IN Series I encourage you to take the time to engage more deeply with the themes and artists of this project. You can watch the salon on INvision here, or listen to it as a podcast below.
“A Fairy Queen is not a fairy tale.” So the narrator of this four part episodic radio opera tells the audience early on. A Fairy Queen is most easily explained by what it is not. It is the same with the work on which it is based, The Fairy Queen, a 1692 semi-opera or dramatick opera by Henry Purcell, which is the most famous example of a form that so escapes contemporary examples of how music and drama are interwoven that it is understood best when described in negative terms of how it differs from more recognizable genres.
The story of opera is interwoven with the story of national identities which distinguished themselves in the 17th and 18th century. Arising originally from the city-state court construction of the Italian peninsula, first in Florence and then spreading to cities like Mantua, Italian court dramma per musica had a certain set of conventions that fit the tastes and talents of an intellectual creative class. In Rome in the first decades of the 17th Century, opera collided with the dogmatic practices and political needs of church hierarchy in the operas of Giulio Rospogliosi, who later himself became pope, with music by such composers as Luigi Rossi or Domenico Mazzochi. The peculiar political manifestation that is Venice, with its reliance on trade and commerce and empowered mercantile class, gave rise to the first explosion of opera as it became a commercial endeavor in 1637, a move which radically changed the structure, conventions, subject matters of the art form. When Francesco Cavalli took his opera Serse to the French court in 1660, the consolidation of absolute national power which so characterized the reign of Louis XIV again changed opera and made it uniquely French. Gone was the castrato so idolized by Italian audiences, replaced by a heroic tenor that would usher in a tradition of leading men for centuries to come. Importantly, dance came to the fore as a dominant expressive aspect of opera, this driven by Louis’ own love of dancing and even his desire to perform in the operas himself. By Cavalli’s second opera in Paris, a new opera called Ercole Amante, a young Florentine Francophile taking the name Jean-Baptiste Lully was asked to insert a ballet. He would go on to father and monopolize, quite literally, the genre of opera in France.
England, however, was a very different place politically and culturally. While the consistency of theocracy and city-state war skirmishes defined a certain status quo on the Italian peninsula, and just the opposite sort of consolidated rule offered regularity to the markets of France, England had come through the bloodiest of civil wars in the first part of the 17th Century only to be ruled as a brutal commonwealth from 1649 to 1660. In the midst of intense violence between Protestants and Catholics, it had also witnessed the execution of a King by the state, and his court fled to safety in France. Also, unlike the other kingdoms or hamlets of continental Europe, England had a vast tradition of commercial theater stretching back into the 16th century, and a school of theater that already dared to break with the conventions of Aristotle and to define itself as stylistically unique and expressively self-actualized. While lawyers and bourgeois thinkers in Florence were taking faltering steps to recreate Greek tragedy with the innovation of through-sung drama in 1598, England was in the midst of the glory of the early-modern theater with writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and, of course, William Shakespeare. Though the puritanical values of the commonwealth had curtailed that theatrical tradition, its memory was very much alive when Charles II was restored to the British throne in 1660. The advent of men, and now women, singing as the principle storytelling device of a performance seemed ridiculous. Music was ornamental to drama, and in that place it should remain.
Restoration theatre is full of a struggling with conventions. The works of playwrights like Shakespeare, clearly beloved, are freely adapted to change endings or to create more horror, magical effect, lightness-of-being. This experimentation was not confined to musicalizations, but semi-operadoes represent a predominant example. In this form, the spoken acts of a play are augmented with a series of musical masques between them. These masques contain loose or no plot at all, rarely connected in any way other than metaphorically to the narrative of the play itself. They are full of dance and opportunities for spectacular stage effects (these were respectively largely the invention of two great practitioners of those arts in late 17th Century London, Josias Priest and Indigo Jones, in a time in which the elements of dance and scenic design were more elevated in importance than we imagine them to be in opera today). The actors in the spoken plays did not sing, and the singers in the masques did not take part in the plays themselves. The plays were often by authors like Shakespeare or Dryden, while the young Henry Purcell was the most prolific composer for a form that also provided fodder for his brother Daniel Purcell and Thomas Eccles, among others. It is a type of entertainment that is hard to fully imagine now. Stretching on for hours, with the focus not as much on content as on wonder and effect. It was played without intermission, and one could choose which aspect delighted them more to determine when to take a break.
The Fairy Queen is Purcell’s last full dramatic work, based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was followed by a now lost Timon of Athens (also on Shakespeare), and the partially complete The Indian Queen, which was finished by his brother Daniel. Having gained fame and notoriety for other entrees into the form like Dioclesian and King Arthur, one can perceive a shift in the composition of The Fairy Queen. The thematic connection between Shakespeare’s world of fairies and lovers is much more a part of Purcell’s masque world. While the plot itself is still not carried out within the musical moments of the experience, the references to the narrative are much more explicit than they would normally be. Oberon himself is mentioned, and the conceit of fairies allows for the expectation that these strange performing creatures that appear at the end of each act are merely supernaturals from the play’s fictional world. It makes a certain sense in a self-conscious theatrical world that actually makes no sense at all. Perhaps this explains the work’s abiding popularity, and not just the fame of the play with which it is associated.
It might also explain why Purcell was drawn to Shakespeare’s magical mystery play, that it allowed a sort of drawing close between masque and act. While semi-operawas the dominant form combining music and drama, there were attempts to explore through-sung drama in England, mostly in the court and not the commercial space. One of these is John Blow’s (Purcell’s student who survived him) Venus and Adonis presented for the court of Charles II, and in which his mistress Nell Gwyn took the leading role. It was probably at a similar court function that Purcell premiered his three-act opera Dido and Aeneas, a work similar to Blow’s in condensed length and three-act structure, with text by English poet laureate Nahum Tate, and the composition by which Purcell is most recognized today. He must have been extremely proud of this work as he reprised it for the girls boarding school run by the same Josias Priest, and one can only imagine that the thoroughness of its storytelling led him to seek out places in the commercial sphere in where drama and music could so entwine.
Of course, it is still a challenge for modern audiences today. Even in The Fairy Queen, the incongruous move from narrative to musical masque is jarring and seems to rob both of their power. This is particularly problematic when one element of the storytelling is from the words of William Shakespeare. Our collective prejudice for his work makes any distraction, even the brilliance of Henry Purcell’s music, seem like a deflowering. These works are long and they require spectacular visual effects and intricate ballets. They are a production challenge for the contemporary arts company, as much as they are for an audience to have a singular experience which embraces the duality inherent in the genre.
We do, in our contemporary theater tradition, have a form that embraces spoken text and music in a fully integrated way that we understand. The American musical, coming as it does from the traditions of singspiel, operetta, and ballad-opera, is just such an art form. A Fairy Queen (the article changed in a nod to director Peter Brooks A Magic Flute in which he reworked Mozart’s final opera) is an attempt to radically deconstruct Purcell’s music and Shakespeare’s text so as to create a new piece that is true to the intentions of both – to be both historical and new.
The music of Purcell’s original semi-opera is augmented with more of his most beloved music (O Solitude, Music for a While, Sweeter than Roses, The Evening Hymn), and that body of melody is spread throughout the play, assigned to characters so as to use music as a storytelling device. The same eight singers take all the roles of the play. To accomplish this the play is reimagined in four acts, or nights, and each is assigned to a different storyline of the original plot. Music has a natural tendency to obfuscate, to pull the listener into a world that reflects and not one that necessarily drive forward. This is particularly true when the music, as is the case in A Fairy Queen, is not that which was originally intended for a given moment. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is already a complicated play, with multiple storylines in abject rebellion against Aristotle’s unities. To clarify, A Fairy Queen tells these stories separately. First the Mechanicals introduce the forested enchanted world. Then domestic warfare of Titania and Oberon is presented in The Fairies. The heartbreak of The Lovers forms the third part and heart of the piece. Fourth, return the Mechnicals to play their play of Pyramus and Thisbe. To this is added a prologue and an epilogue.
The music itself is freely adapted for its new storytelling role. Solos become duets, duets become trios, and even the famous Plaint becomes a quartet for heartbroken lovers. Sacred texts have become profane as they refer to characters by name. This isn’t the only way in which music is thrust into the fore of the storytelling. While the plethora of music was intended to take centerstage for the dances of The Fairy Queen, here it becomes the underscore to spoken text, again taking a cue from the American musical-theater tradition. It drives or retards the action with intention, and sets the atmosphere of any given moment. In this way the music gives life to the play, filling out character in a way that only music can. Music and text are woven together in a carefully choreographed entwining of expression.
A Fairy Queen was created for the Iford Arts Festival, and performed there in the summer of 2016 in the cloister of the outdoor garden opera festival as a fully staged production. 2020 presented unprecedented challenges to recreating this production on stage. The global COVID-19 pandemic made live performance impossible, but the particular challenges of what is still an epic piece of theater (in terms of cast, crew, effects, orchestra, technical needs) made it equally impossible to imagine a digital film version of this work. The idea to present it in the style of a classic radio drama provided a wonderful solution to this quandary. Suddenly the impossible is possible as the audience’s imagination is engaged to create these fantastical worlds. Suddenly partnerships with singers and instrumentalists around the world is easily realized. Suddenly the length of the piece makes it perfect to divide into episodes that tell the story serially.
There is a certain wondrous parallelism to this as well. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written between 1595 and 1596, the same period in which Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet. This was the first year the theaters in London had been opened after a devastating period of plague. Illness and death had ravaged his country, and what artistic vision rose up inside William Shakespeare was that of a whimsy, mystery, music, wonder, love, loss, and magic. It was his balm offered to a people walking in darkness. It is significant that IN Series opens its 2020-2021 Virtual Season, one intended to expand art and audience alike, giving balm and suturing wounds, in this same way.
Having completed work on and released our first offering of this exciting 2020-2021 virtual season, A FAIRY QUEEN – the podcast opera – we dove right into production on our second major offering of the season: ORPHEUS AND EURYDICE. This opera, known by music students and opera lovers around the world as the revolutionary opera that changed the form forever, is also deeply human portrayal of loss and grief while in the prime of life. It’s surprising intimacy lends itself in a particular way to film, a medium that allows for a deep detail of storytelling that isn’t possible on the stage. And so, your IN Series has embarked on its first movie making adventure.
As INcredible as it is to believe, not having every made a film isn’t in the by any stretch the most challenging part of this undertaking. The first and most daunting hurdle to overcome is of course how to make a film an opera about characters in intimate relationship during the present COVID-19 pandemic. As I’ve often said, this time of forced reconsidering allows for practices and partnerships that would otherwise be impossible. The Orpheus myth, and particularly the way that Gluck tells it, is really the journey or a husband and wife travelling through death, grief, and the beginnings of recovery. Before my life at IN Series, I was fortunate as a freelance director to work in the UK with soprano Paula Sides, a native of America’s south just like me, who ended up in Britain carving out a spectacular career singing roles as diverse as Romilda in Handel’s Serse, Elle in Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, and Tosca in the opera that needs no further description (you can catch her concert at the Royal Opera House HERE). I also was fortunate enough to have a profound experience staging Handel’s last great oratorio Jephtha with Benjamin Williamson in the role of Hamor (check out this video from Handel’s Romilda HERE). In the year following these respective projects, Paula and Ben met independently, fell in love, and became married. Casting them in the roles of Orpheus and Eurydice (and for all you Gluckphiles out there Paula also sings the role of Love in our film version) provided a perfect opportunity to firstly actually make the piece (after all, a husband and wife duo hardly need to distance), to secondly work with dear friends and respected colleagues, and lastly to share important artistic voices with our audiences in DC.
Of course, casting alone didn’t solve all the challenges. How to make a film when its director and team where across the ocean (talk about socially distanced!). We commissioned Jan Capinski, an amazing musician, recording engineer and videographer living in London, to work with me to make the film at a distance. Ben, Paula, and I spent weeks exploring the meanings of the piece as they would send video tours of their home and its surroundings. With that information I built a storyboard for the piece. Then we spent a week in daily hours long zoom sessions rehearsing the piece together. During this Paula would often serve as camera person on her Iphone as I would ask Ben to try various gestures or positions. At the same time Paula and Ben coached with music director Simone Luti who prepared an audio version of the piano track to this project. For some sections that piano track came first, and for other sections Paula and Ben sang their recitative sections first, which then Simone accompanied from Canada. Those disparate parts were assembled finally on my computer and became the final musical track (or almost so…more on that later) for the film.
Then the fun began! We spent the last two weeks filming this project inside Ben and Paula’s home (along with a fieldtrip to a local park for some outdoor shots). Of course, there is a five hour time difference between London and Washington, so I was up at about 4am each morning to work with the team on these scenes. At times this meant Jan filming Ben in the cramped bathroom of their home, Paula dressing the set and then shouting out directions before having to jump into the scene herself, and me hanging out on a shelf somewhere on zoom trying to guide the process. It took a lot of faith in these wonderful friends and artists, and also in the process itself.
Now all those files are in the post from London the Washington (too big to be sent digitally…so lets hope the post gets here successfully!), and soon the editing will begin. It has been an INcredible adventure, and one that already hints at yielding something deep beauty also because of the way it was made. Stay tuned folks, you won’t want to miss this!